COVID-19 has led to stunning economic disruption. As infection hotspots pop up around the country, states have grappled with excruciating choices between protecting public health and bolstering the economy. Optimizing for both has proven difficult, if not impossible.
Is there anything else you see in the state employment/unemployment data that offers insight into what may lie ahead?
Gerstein: I am concerned that continuing high unemployment rates will lead to higher rates of labor violations, including safety and health, because it will make it harder for workers to speak up. Although it's illegal for employers to retaliate against workers for reporting violations, studies show high rates of such retaliation, even before the pandemic. In a high unemployment situation, the consequences of employer retaliation are even worse because it's more difficult for workers to find a new job. Pre-COVID, there was already a great disparity of bargaining power between employers and workers; that disparity is exacerbated by high unemployment, which may lead to further degraded working conditions. At the same time, the seriousness of COVID-related health risks has also led to an increase in worker organizing and activism. I anticipate and hope that this trend will continue.
Freeman: I always look at the insured unemployment rate, which is the number of people getting unemployment insurance. It has been dropping a bit in the past few months, but largely because some folks are being rehired. The only way to get unemployment down to healthy levels is by creating new jobs, and we see very little there.
In the past few months, U.S. businesses have been on a silencing spree. Hundreds of U.S. employers across a wide range of industries have told workers not to share information about Covid-19 cases or even raise concerns about the virus, or have retaliated against workers for doing those things, according to workplace complaints filed with the NLRB and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
In July, Colorado’s governor signed a similar law, making it illegal for companies to require workers to keep health concerns private or retaliate against workers who raise them. A few days after the Colorado bill signing, Virginia’s state safety board passed its own binding Covid regulations, including a ban on retaliation against workers who raise reasonable concerns at work or on social media and a requirement that companies notify co-workers and the state about coronavirus cases.... Read more about Covid Gag Rules at U.S. Companies Are Putting Everyone at Risk
State attorneys general can play a critical role in protecting and enforcing workers’ rights. There has been a significant uptick in the involvement of state attorneys general in this area in the past several years. Most recently, several state attorneys general have been highly active in taking action to protect workers during the coronavirus pandemic.
While there are variations in state attorney general office resources and jurisdiction, these offices often have a range of powers that can enable them to advance and defend workplace protections and ensure that employers comply with the law. This current report details the proliferation of state attorney general activities in support of workers’ rights from mid-2018 to the present.
When the Milwaukee Bucks announced Wednesday that they would not be playing their NBA playoff game due to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the media couldn’t agree on what to call this extraordinary thing that was unfolding. Were the players mounting a protest? Were they initiating a boycott? Or were they carrying out a strike or work stoppage?
Sharon Block, director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, said the situation brought to mind the walkout led by employees of Wayfair, the online home furnishings retailer, because the company was supplying beds to U.S. detention centers for migrant children. The dispute was about social injustice ― not working conditions ― and the workers were asking the broader community to stand by them in condemning it.
“Whatever the label is, this is about solidarity,” Block said of the athletes’ move. “It’s not just to advance their own interest, but to lead on a bigger public policy issue. ... They’re asking the public to join them in saying there’s something more important going on than sports.”
Workers have a key role to play in designing and implementing new, on-the-job health practices—and even more so in the absence of enforceable federal standards. If they aren’t able to speak up when they spot a problem, we risk prolonging this crisis, deepening the economic pain, and ultimately losing more lives.
MIT research has shown that companies with empowered frontline staff who have trusting, collaborative relationships with management are better at quickly identifying challenges and developing and implementing new solutions. This makes intuitive sense—workers know better than anyone how to do their jobs best, what risks they face, and how to solve problems in the workplace.
The threats from Uber and Lyft to halt their businesses came after a California court ordered them last Monday to reclassify their drivers in the state as employees in 10 days. This reclassification would represent a radical shift for the two businesses. They built up massive fleets of drivers by treating them as independent contractors. That way they were not entitled to benefits like minimum wage, overtime pay, workers' compensation, unemployment insurance and paid sick leave.
California is hardly the only legal challenge Uber and Lyft are facing. Massachusetts has a similar law to AB-5 and the attorney general there recently sued the companies over worker misclassification. Decisions in Pennsylvania and New York around unemployment insurance also go against the companies' stance on employment. Last year, the New Jersey Labor Commissioner determined Uber owed $649 million in unpaid unemployment insurance contributions as a result of driver misclassification.
During the summer of coronavirus UPS drivers are working 12 hour shifts delivering a record number of packages in record heat, all while wearing masks.Business has soared for UPS as Americans have turned to home delivery during the pandemic, but employees say heavy workloads, COVID-19 safety measures and sweltering summer heat are pushing them to the limit.
But despite a growing attention to the role of essential workers, advocates said OSHA, which polices workplaces, has failed to protect them.
According to some estimates, over 50 million people today may be engaged in some type of gig work. In the side hustle economy, gig work has become a necessity to make ends meet while also providing some flexibility that a typical 9 to 5 wouldn’t. But gig workers are facing an identity crisis now, especially those working for popular app-based companies like Uber, Lyft, Postmates, or Doordash. Are they their own self-employed bosses, or are they employees?
A government watchdog said in a report out Tuesday that the Labor Department “significantly broadened” an exemption allowing millions of health-care workers to be denied paid sick leave as part of the law Congress passed in March to help workers during the coronavirus pandemic.
But an Office of the Inspector General report noted that a move by the Labor Department to more broadly expand how they categorize health-care providers ended up leaving far more workers without a guarantee of paid sick leave than the agency’s estimate of 9 million.
Actions taken to enforce the sick-leave provisions in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act have skewed even further away from investigations: 85 percent have been resolved through conciliations.
“These numbers just look so different than the numbers that I’m used to seeing in terms of conciliations versus investigations,” said Sharon Block, a senior Obama administration labor department official. “It really does jump out. That 85 percent is just a really big number.”
BY DEBBIE BERKOWITZ & TERRI GERSTEIN Morning Consult
Given the scope of the current crisis, states and cities can’t completely fill the void left by a nonfunctioning OSHA. But we’ve all seen the charts showing state variations in COVID rates. State and local leadership unquestionably can make a meaningful difference in the health of our communities. Keeping workers safe is one of the most important actions that government leaders can take to stop the spread of the virus — and enable long-term economic recovery. It won’t be easy; politics is complex, and corporate interests will fight tooth and nail against new workplace protections. But people’s lives are in the balance. It would be government malpractice not even to try. ... Read more about With OSHA as an Employer Advice Columnist, States and Cities Should Protect Workers from COVID-19